30 is the number.

Boat design series.

The sea-going 30 foot boat.

Note to readers….obviously things are, shall we say, a bit different at the moment.

I would normally be putting out 2 or 3 blog posts a week but i’m going to drop that right down to once a week for the foreseeable future.  Although i like writing my view count as dropped to nearly nothing so it just isn’t worthwhile my time to try and keep up the content that i would be doing at this time of year.  In my own life i may be recalled to ‘active duty’ in the hospital if and when emergency legislation is passed and i’m preparing for the worst eventuality with that.

In blog time it’s mid March and i’m having a back and forth conversation with my mate ‘big Al’ who lives down in NZ.  Me and Al sailed together and on at least one occasion, post charter, got totally and completely drunk together in the Caribbean when we worked there.  A few years back we got to visit Al at his place on the north island NZ and he took us out on his little Jim Young designed centerboard cruising boat ‘Little Boat’. That’s a sweet and quick little boat that usually lives in Al’s shed and which Al and his partner Nina go cruising on ; by all accounts they have a lot of fun but even Al says that 3 days is about the limit for comfort and that they really need a bigger boat for longer cruises.

Alan Smith photograph.


New Zealand is, i think, a difficult coast to cruise on a small boat ; as Al says “it’s almost all offshore sailing” straight away out of the harbour and it can be a hard thrash to the next place to shelter . The coastline i sail on is vastly different to NZ : i can have a lot of enjoyable cruising in sheltered water such as my own home river and then chose my conditions to day sail to the next river …Fowey or Falmouth being just further west.       My impression of NZ boats while i had the chance to look around was that trailer-sailers are a very good idea for local cruising and then there’s a gap in size and the more usual cruising boats tend to be a lot larger and a lot more rugged than many European yachts.

Photo courtesy of Al’s mate ‘TC’.

created by dji camera
created by dji camera

I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that me and Al have found what is essentially the same solution to our sailing needs ; that being, small simple centreboard boats that do have a cabin which can easily go on a trailer, are low maintenance and so on.  In Al’s case ‘Little Boat’ is very low maintenance because she gets washed down as soon as she’s done a trip and then lives in a nice dry shed.

If i had more space at home, well not so much more space but a more logically laid out space then that’s exactly what i would do with WABI”’ and she would live in the drive next to the workshop.  The downside for me would then be the additional expense of having to run a towing vehicle like my 21 year old Pajero and that would cost about the same to run per year as a mooring at the yard costs me.

A really good question that iv’e been asked several times is “would i have a bigger boat….and if so what would that boat be” ? and it’s that question that i’m going to look at today in the context of what Al is doing next and what we very nearly did here ; surprisingly similar choices.  Today i’m not going to deal with my fantasy boat….she comes along in the next post, in this post i’m mainly going to talk about the time when i did seriously go looking for my next boat and what it might have been.

Javelin half tonner.


Readers might remember a series of posts i wrote around 2 years ago when i was coming up to retirement and thinking about doing a long period of offshore cruising….a kind of ‘INCH’ situation in which the boat would have become a long term home and cruising vehicle.  I put a lot of time into thinking about the minimal requirements for a boat that would be both a good sea-boat and a viable home on the water although i didn’t post much about my thinking behind all of that.  At the time i must have spent weeks of internet search time studying boat after boat and after that started the actual ‘boots on the ground time’ going to see other boats…..that all got a bit interrupted when i had my left knee ‘big end’ replacement and everything changed again.

I’ll try and explain the whole idea i had at that time without going into endless detail….

Firstly that i was seriously considering living permanently or nearly permanently on the water as a retired boat-bum and moving with the seasons.  Secondly that i thought it would be interesting and ‘fun’ (horrible word !) to go and see parts of the world…at least the deep and wet bits…that i haven’t yet been to.  Now, iv’e not been, to a whole load of places although i have seen vast amounts of ocean ; and ocean isn’t that interesting to be brutally honest….just a way of getting to somewhere that is a lot more interesting. So, i set out a couple of sailing plans for going to places that i really did want to go-see bu ‘going-sea’ and one at the top of the list was to ‘go-see’ Al and Nina in New Zealand.

Now, i have actually been to New Zealand by sea and sailed on from there, around the Horn and back home but i didn’t get to cruise much of NZ or that big continent they have just to the west of them !.  So, plan 1 was to set up the minimal boat that i would be happy with to take on a transoceanic voyage all the way there.  Because iv’e been there via the great capes route i fancied doing it differently and going via the Caribbean islands , the Panama canal and then a big chunk of the Pacific.   If you want to think of that as then driving the primary specification for the boat then what you get is the need to cover distance at reasonable speed and that means having a boat that will go both upwind and downwind across a variety of wind speeds….and will do that day after day, week after week without exhausting it’s crew.    If you like, then do the same exercise as i did and that’s to take a look at the ocean routeing charts, month by month, and see exactly what conditions the boat will have to deal with.  I can tell that you that what you get is a lot of light weather downwind work and some surprisingly brisk windward sailing.  In my sailing experience and within my budget at the time the boats to look at were all at the older and more seamanlike end of offshore cruiser-racers and at about the old half-ton rating which tends to give you a boat of around 30 feet overall.

Some readers might remember that i once had a very well set up 26 footer that i had intended to use in a similar role although that period in my sailing life was a long time before i started the blog so she doesn’t appear much except for a few anecdotes.  For reference WABI” was a Frances 26 which was a boat i’d always wanted to own , i found one with the layout that i wanted and totally refitted her over several years.  She was a lovely boat to sail and might have been capable of the NZ voyage as long as i did that solo but wasn’t really big enough to do the trip in the way that i wanted which was with my partner as crew.  The critical point is being able to carry double the stores and water for each leg, plus reserve, and not loading the boat so much that it becomes heavy and slow….the way it works out is that 30 feet of boat, generally speaking, is that the 30 footer does have about that much extra carrying capacity, does have the useful extra waterline length and yet the gear, while being bigger and more expensive isn’t hugely more expensive than on the 26 foot boat.

The boat we actually found and that i so very nearly bought had an interior space not unlike my Frances 26….with the addition of a nice big forepeak tacked on the end, wider of course and with more useable interior volume.

Javelin 30 foot..IOR half ton.

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Why 30 feet ?

For long distance offshore and ocean sailing the 30 footer wins every time…..at least when compared with the 26 footer say : more waterline length (in most designs) therefore higher average speed in most conditions, more carrying capacity for water, food and stores and space enough to separate living and sailing functions.  I intended to do the NZ trip 2 up which would have allowed me the one thing that i believe is essential which is continuous watchkeeping (or at least every 15-20 minutes) by one of the crew while the other person is asleep.  At 30 feet one crewmember should be able to perform most sail handling functions most of the time as long as the systems are set up well.  Secondly the on-watch person should be able to do all of the other jobs that are necasary at sea without disturbing the off-watch.  That requires a separation of functional space within the boat, for example that the sea berths can be used while the galley and/or navigation area is in use and while the on-watch person is keeping watch from shelter.

You might be thinking now something along the lines of ‘ well if 26 feet isn’t quite enough and 30 feet is, then why not go to 35 feet or more’ ?.  Ok and fair enough and my objection is that firstly the budget….the boat is usually going to be that much more expensive but it’s the gear that is getting a lot more expensive….and heavy.  The boat i found seemed to have a sound hull and deck, a new engine and rig but she really needed a new sail wardrobe and a lot of work on the interior.  My main expense would have been sails as i intended to have several hanked jibs and at least one dedicated downwind sail.  I would have also bought at least one new full size anchor and one good ‘second’ anchor.  For me it was the cost and weight of the new gear that was crucial…with the 30 footer i would have been happy with my simple approach with hanked jibs on the one hand and anchor gear that i could both rely on and man-haul if i had to.   At 35 feet the main problem for me is that new gear is getting very expensive and i don’t see the need for the additional space in the boat….the 30 footer, to me, seems to be the compromise point at which we have just enough length and carrying capacity and no more…a neat and elegant compromise if you like.

I note that others have come up with about the same solution and answer : the Pardey’s second boat was just under 30 feet but heavy displacement so functionally very close to the lighter displacement cruiser-racer .  My favourite youtube sailing channel also features a 30 foot boat (Mirrool and Free Range Sailing) and they seem to have almost exactly the compromise solution that i was looking for.  For sure they have a different interior layout but even with that i’d worked out a couple of different ways that i intended to do that with my 2 very different 30 foot contenders.

So…..it doesn’t surprise me at all that Al has chosen a 30 foot design for his own fast cruising boat and in future posts we’ll be hearing a lot of his thoughts about why the same size range works for him.  In the next post i intend to compare and contrast our diverging choices though : what Al intends to build and what i would chose to build if i had the resources to start from a bare sheet of paper and not be constrained by a secondhand project boat.

“Sweet dreams are made of this….”



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